JOSEPH STERN / MATRIX THEATRE
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The Matrix Experiment
(Originally printed in the Los Angeles Daily News, March 7, 1994)
Double casting gives theater top actors, receptive audiences.


By Daryl H. Miller

Charles Hallahan juggles a television job as Brett Butler's oil-refinery boss on the popular ABC series "Grace Under Fire" with a small role as a rural New York sheriff in a Melrose Avenue production of George M. Cohan's 1920 play "The Tavern."

Most days, there are no conflicts. "The Tavern" plays Thursdays through Sundays, and Hallahan's TV schedule allows him to perform Thursday evenings and weekends.

But on Friday evenings, he tapes the TV show.

That would be a problem at most theaters. But not at the Matrix Theatre Company, where Hallahan's part is doubled by James Handy, recognizable from such films as "Arachnophobia."

All 15 of the play's roles are doubled to provide this flexibility. If an actor needs to miss a few performances to accept higher-paying television or film work, the double is ready and waiting.  And when there are no conflicts, the actors alternate performances, sharing the spotlight.

"We don't buy into that whole star number.  It's a repertory company and whoever you see, you see." - Producer Joseph Stern

This innovative approach to casting has attracted an impressive lineup of actors, including Cotter Smith, Lindsay Crouse, Marian Mercer, David Dukes and Audra Lindley.

"The Matrix experiment has solved a major issue, which is: If you're working here in town and you're only going to miss a night here and there, does that mean you have to give up the theater? And the answer is no," Hallahan said.

Smith, best-known as prosecutor Eugene Rogan on the former ABC legal drama "Equal Justice," added: "I think this company is very important for this city. We need a good repertory company of actors like this. (The) concept of double-casting is bringing in actors who don't have the time or energy to do a long run of a play anymore, given that they have families and mortgages and needs to make money other ways."

The actors aren't the only ones who are raving.

"The Tavern" opened in previews Nov. 24, and as soon as glowing reviews hit print in early December, audiences steadily grew until they filled the 99-seat theater. The Jan. 17 earthquake caused attendance to dip, but the numbers are back up to an average 95 percent of capacity.

Now, as the entertainment world passes through awards season, the show is racking up a slew of nominations.

The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle whose members write for local newspapers and trade publications has nominated the show for seven awards, including the prestigious Best Production prize. Its tally ties with the lavish "Sunset Boulevard" for most nominations. (Winners will be announced Tuesday.)

The critics at the Weekly have nominated "The Tavern" for three awards including outstanding revival production as part of that publication's annual awards to smaller theaters. And the theater trade publication Drama-Logue gave the show two awards, including outstanding production.

"I was trying to get good actors to recommit to the theater and, if I could, get the audience to recommit to the theater," Joseph Stern, the Matrix Theatre Company's producer.

He appears to have succeeded.

"The Tavern" is the first production of a newly reconstituted company under Stern's supervision.

He was one of the leading lights of Los Angeles theater in the 1980s, when he led Actors for Themselves at the Matrix in the same Melrose Avenue theater that the new company occupies,

Actors for Themselves established an enviable track record, staging the world premieres of such renowned plays as Lyle Kessler's "Orphans" and Simon Gray's "The Common Pursuit," and winning the Drama Critics' prestigious 1982 Margaret Harford Award for sustained and distinguished achievement in small theater.

Stem left Los Angeles for three years in the early '90s to serve as executive producer of the NBC drama "Law & Order" in New York. When he returned, he was determined to solve one of Los Angeles theater's most perplexing problems:

Why do big-name actors rarely appear on local stages, even though many of them are itching to tread the boards?

For most, they earn their bread and butter in the lucrative television and film fields, so theater is a hobby they can't afford.

On series television, a well-known actor can earn $10,000 to $30,000 per episode, Stern said. Most weeks at the Matrix, the actors have earned $14 a performance, in accordance with the relaxed salary standards that the Actors Equity Association union allows in theaters with 99 or fewer seats.

Not only does theater pay poorly, but it requires a time commitment of weeks or months.

So if actors accept stage jobs, they face a dilemma whenever screen work becomes available. They either must turn it down or bow out of the stage production, leaving the show in the lurch if it doesn't happen to have understudies. And many stage shows don't, especially smaller ones.

With its double-cast roles, however, "The Tavern" allows prominent actors like Hallahan to work for television or film, then moonlight in the theater.

The actors appreciate this access to theater, in which they stoke their creative energies.

"Suppose you're an expert golfer and you have a bag that has 10 clubs in it, and you hit good, straight, true shots with all 10 clubs," Hallahan said. "You've been trained to do so, and you've worked hard so that you're good with all clubs. When the movies hire you, they ask you to just bring your nine iron, and in the theater, you get to use all your clubs."

The Matrix and its audiences benefit by gaining access to some of the most experienced and best-known actors in the business.

And for audiences and actors alike, there's an added level of excitement in the Matrix's policy of reshuffling the cast every night.

One night, Smith might be portraying a wandering vagabond opposite Mitchell Ryan as a tavern owner and John Walcutt as the owner's son. At the next performance, Smith might play opposite Jim Haynie and Kurt Deutsch in those roles. And the next, he might play opposite Ryan and Deutsch.

This changes the play's dynamics.

"It's something like musicians jamming," said performer Penny Fuller, perhaps best-known for her Emmy Award-winning performance as Mrs. Kendal in "The Elephant Man." "We know the play, but because it's a little different (every night), we're taking off on riffs because the person opposite you is a little different than the one last night."

Ticket buyers are not told who's playing the night they're purchasing tickets. "We don't want to buy into that whole star number," Stern said. "It's a repertory company and whoever you see you see."

Stern intends to double-cast most Matrix shows. The exceptions will be brand-new plays, which the company will begin to tackle in future seasons. New plays often need to be refined during rehearsals, a process that would be too complicated with two actors in each role. "The writer needs the continuity," Stem said.

In coming seasons, the Matrix will tackle a broad range of dramatic literature, including classics, revivals and new plays. "I'll do anything that's good," Stern said.

The company's second show will be "Habeas Corpus," a little-known 1973 British farce by Alan Bennett, April 12 through June 19. For the third show, several company members are adapting and staging short stories by Anton Chekhov.

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